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The word plenipotentiary (from the Latin, plenus + potens, full + power) has two meanings.

As a noun, it refers to a person who has "full powers". In particular, the term commonly refers to a diplomat who is fully authorized to represent their government as a prerogative (e.g., ambassador).

As an adjective, plenipotentiary refers to that which confers "full powers".


Before the era of rapid international transport (such as cars, trains and aircraft) or virtually instantaneous communication (such as radio or telephone), diplomatic mission chiefs were granted full (plenipotentiary) powers to represent their government in negotiations with their host nation. Conventionally, any representations made or agreements reached with them would be recognized and complied with by their government.

Historically, the common generic term for high diplomats of the crown or state was Minister. It therefore became customary to style the chiefs of full ranking missions as Minister Plenipotentiary. This position was roughly equivalent to the modern Ambassador - a term which historically was reserved mainly for missions between the great powers and also relating to the city state of Venicemarker.

Permanent missions at a bilateral level were chiefly limited to relations between large, neighbouring or closely allied powers. However, diplomatic missions were dispatched for specific tasks such as negotiating a treaty bilaterally or via a conference such as the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. In such cases it was normal to send a representative minister empowered to cast votes.

Below the rank of Minister Plenipotentiary there were in some cases a Minister Resident or Resident Minister: a form of which is sometimes seen in colonial indirect rule. Below this again came a Chargé d'affaires who was not accredited to the head of state but represented at government level.

By the time of the Vienna Congress (1814-15), which codified diplomatic relations, Ambassador had become a common title, and was established as the only class above Minister Plenipotentiary; Ambassadors would gradually become the standardized title for bilateral mission chiefs as their ranks no longer tended to reflect the importance of the states, which came to be treated as formally equal.

In modern times, heads of state and of government, and more junior ministers and officials, can easily meet or speak with each other personally. Therefore ambassadors arguably do not require plenipotentiary powers; however they continue to be designated and accredited as extraordinary and plenipotentiary.

Administering Plenipotentiaries

As well as diplomatic plenipotentiaries, some permanent administrators are also given plenipotentiary powers. Central governments have sometimes conferred plenipotentiary status (either formally or de facto) on territorial governors. This has been most likely to occur when the remoteness of the administered territory made it impracticable for the central government to maintain and exercise its policies, laws and initiatives directly.

There have been instances where a mandate was conferred publicly on a senior official, such as a minor member of the ruling house (sometimes with the title of viceroy) but with secret instructions limiting his or her power drastically by conferring plenipotentiary status on a more junior administrator, possibly of lower social class or caste. Thus the formal position held by an individual has not always been a reliable indicator of actual plenipotentiary authority.

Even in modern times, the Plenipotentiary title has been revived sometimes, for example for the administrators of protectorates or in other cases of indirect rule.

Examples of plenipotentiary administration are given below.

Colonial era

Pre-World War II Europe

  • On the Greek island of Cretemarker, after the President of the Executive Commission of the Cretan Assembly, Ioannis Konstantinou Sphakianakis (b. 1848 - d. 1924), had exercised executive power 20 March - 21 December 1898 after evicting the last Ottoman Wāli, a Supreme Plenipotentiary Commissioner of the (Christian protecting) Powers headed the official administration of the 20 March 1898 instituted Cretan State (formally under Ottoman suzerainty until Independence declared on 6 October 1908):
    • 21 December 1898 - 30 September 1906 Prince Georgios of Greece (b. 1869 - d. 1959)
    • 1 October 1906 - 30 September 1911 Alexandros Thrasivoulou Zaimis (b. 1855 - d. 1936); then, 30 September 1911 - 30 May 1913, the post remained vacant but was not abolished until the island was officially incorporated into the Kingdom of the Hellenes, i.e. Greecemarker.
  • In Slovakiamarker, 15 January 1927 - 28 June 1928 Josef Kállay (b. 1881 - d. 1939) was Minister Plenipotentiary and Administrator of the Czechoslovak government

In the Nazi Reich

  • in Slovakiamarker, July 1939 - 4 April 1945, three consecutive German Envoys and Ministers Plenipotentiary (the old diplomatic style) formally represented the Reich in the fascist puppet state (14 March 1939 - 3 April 1945) of Jozef Tiso (b. 1887 - d. 1947; former Czechoslovak Ministers for Slovak Affairs 6 October - 28 November 1938) HSLS (acting to 26 October 1939; from 1942 self-styled Vodca "Leader", a typical extreme right nationalist Führer-imitation
  • in the occupied Netherlandsmarker, the Dutch being a Germanic people, under a Reichskommissar ('Imperial Commissioner'), German Plenipotentiaries were appointed during 1940-45 at the provincial level by the side of the regular Dutch Provincial Commissioners in Drenthe, Friesland, Gelderland, Groningenmarker, Limburgmarker, North Holland, Overijssel, Utrechtmarker and South Hollandmarker, and during 1940-1944 in North Brabantmarker and Zeelandmarker .
  • in Denmarkmarker, another Germanic country under Nazi-German occupation (9 April 1940 - 5 May 1945), initially a German protectorate was established, led by a Reichsbevollmächtigter ('Imperial Plenipotentiary'). On 29 August 1943, the German Nazis took over direct administration under a Reichskommissar ('Imperial Commissioner')
  • in the middle 1944, Joseph Goebbels was named Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War on the home front (Reichsbevollmächtigter für den totalen Kriegseinsatz an der Heimatfront), as other Nazi personalities earned Plenipotentiary titles inside the Reich's government. Heinrich Himmler held the title of Generalbevollmächtigter für die Verwaltung or general plenipotentiary for the entire Reich's administration. His aide, Walter Schellenberg, held the title of Sonderbevollmächtigter or specialplenipotentiary to Himmler. Granting absolute power over a particular or general governmental matter to a single individual was a pervasive practice among the top Nazis.
  • the German de facto military takeover of Italy, its major European Axis-ally, after Mussolini's military and political collapse (he was pro forma restyled Provisional Head of State and Prime minister of the "Italian Social Republic", i.e. the fascist Counter Government at Saló) was headed 12 September 1943 - 28 April 1945 by a German Plenipotentiary: Rudolf Rahn (b. 1900 - d. 1975); there were separate military commanders.

Since 1945

On May 18, 2000, in the post-Soviet Russian Federationmarker the title Plenipotentiary of the President was established for the appointees of the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in each of the seven federal districts created on May 13: Dalnevostochny (Far Eastern), Privolzhsky (Volga Region), Severo-Zapadny (North Western), Sibirsky (Siberian), Tsentralny (Central), Uralsky (Ural) and Yuzhny (Southern).

Problems of translating the word "plenipotentiary"

This word has been voted as one of the ten English words that are hardest to translate in June 2004 by Today Translations, a Britishmarker translation company. However, almost the exact word exists in at least some of the Romance languages (such as Portuguese - plenipotenciário; French - plénipotentiaire; Romanian - plenipotenţiar; Spanish - plenipotenciario; Italian - plenipotenziario), with the exact same meaning, as well as in other languages (for instance, German - Bevollmächtigt(er) (adjective or noun), Dutch Gevolmachtigd(e), Swedish fullmäktig, Norwegian fullmektig - all these Germanic cases are literal parallels; Serbian punomoćan (пуномоћан in Cyrillic), Czech zplnomocněný (plno=full, moc=power), Bulgarian пълномощен (pǎlnomošten), Finnish täysivaltainen, Greek πληρεξούσιος, plērexoúsios, Turkish tam yetkili, and Tatar wäqälätle.


Sometimes, ministers might ask an electorate for plenipotentiary powers in advance if they are to negotiate a series of changes and it is impractical to hold a new referendum each time a change is made.

An example of this is the South African apartheid referendum, 1992. Prior to the referendum, the state president F. W. de Klerk had already implemented extensive reforms e.g. removing the Group Areas Act, thereby partially surrendering his country to the liberal elite and the ANC, an organisation regarded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as being a terrorist organisation. However, his right to negotiate these reforms was questioned by other parties e.g. Andries Treurnicht's Conservative Party, particularly in response to the National Party's Potchefstroommarker by-election defeat in February 1992. Consequently, Mr. de Klerk held a referendum on the 17th of March 1992 to ask the white South African electorate to give him plenipoteniary powers to negotiate South Africa's full surrender.

Given how heavily entrenched apartheid was in the South African legal system at the time, Mr. de Klerk needed to nullify many previous bills and pass many new ones, making a series of individual referenda impractical. Similarly, it would have been difficult to negotiate a series of reforms and then wait until the end of the process to hold a referendum, because of the opposition from other parties and the doubtful credibility of his party in light of the Potchefstroom defeat. Consequently, a referendum asking for plenipotentiary powers was a practical solution to the political deadlock and enabled Mr. de Klerk to achieve his aims.

See also

Sources and references

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